Mr Green Thumb
The Times of India
4 January 2001
Peter H Raven, President, American Association for the Advancement of
Science, and TIME's `Hero of the Planet', has devoted his life to
biodiversity and environment studies. The Missouri Botanical Garden, St
Louis, has become ``a microcosm of the wide green world'' under his
directorship. In Delhi to deliver the 20th Coromandel lecture on Friday on
``World of Nature: Future of Mankind'', Raven speaks to Narayani Ganesh on
depletion of biota worldwide, the importance of promoting co-evolution of
plants and animals to conserve biodiversity, the recent breakthroughs in
biotechnology and what it holds for sustainable development:
Why do you call the 21st century ``the age of biology''?
The 20th century was the age of physical sciences, of physics and
chemistry, when the power of the atom was unleashed. Most of the
fundamentally important discoveries in the field of biology have been made
in the second half of the 20th century. Starting with the postulation of
the double-helical structure of the DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953; the
first transfer of the gene from one unrelated kind of organism to another
by Herb Boyer and Stan Cohen in 1973, and ending the century with the
decoding of the genomes of a couple of dozens of species of organisms
including the human genome and a plant genome, biology has been
We are therefore poised to take advantage of biology as a series of
individual productive systems, communities and eco-systems in a way that
we could never do before.
How can we use the principles of biology to promote sustainable
By producing plants that can more effectively be used in agriculture and
forestry, to produce plants that can make their own insecticide, to
accelerate the process of breeding to produce other kinds of plants and
animals that will have in-built vaccines, medicines, to get plants and
animals that can resist drought, get by with the minimum water, be more
nutritious, to make possible sustainable agriculture. Also, to reclaim
lands that are overgrazed, use plants, animals and microorganisms to come
together to form more sustainable ecosystems.
Will the advantages of the biotech revolution will outweigh the
The major thing we have to look for is sustainability - systems that will
be able to go on into the future without using up resources faster than
they can be regenerated. Increasing population, consumption patterns, and
diminishing natural resources in India and the world over in the 50 years
need sustainable solutions; productivity alone is not enough. A
combination of biological, physical, social forces can help.
For instance, the Green Revolution brought new techniques that helped
increase food production through hybrid varieties of wheat, maize etc.
However, the gains in productivity were not sustainable because the lands,
the water, countryside, resources have degraded all along.
So is the Green Revolution losing its shine now?
Gordon Conway, President, Rockefeller Foundation put it this way: ``We
need a doubly green revolution''. We need to not only fix the productivity
at high levels but ensure that it stays that way.
We need to address social and economic factors. People need access to
credit; they need to be respected; we need to have crops growing with
characteristics that will not take away the fertility of the land. Too
much fertiliser over too many years has made many lands saline. Fertile
lands become deserts.
Integrated pest management for example has to allow for natural
surroundings of the field - hospitable to birds, herbs, medicinal plants,
etc. So you'll want to use not only traditional plant breeding methods but
also modern methods like genetic modifications that create transgenic
But won't large-scale introduction of GM technology homogenise plant
varieties, reducing the genetic pool?
I see the entire world benefiting from the new technology. Though
agriculture started barely four generations ago, we now have an area as
large as South America under cultivation, worldwide. Nothing can be more
damaging to biological diversity. Agriculture prompts ridding fields of
animals, insects, weeds - the very goal of farmers is to get rid of
India with all of its universities, the ICAR, advanced biotechnology, and
scientists, now needs to be careful of its own germ plasm and the right to
own its own genetic diversity. The recent tussle over patenting of
basmati, neem etc shows that India needs to formulate and effect laws to
protect its rich biodiversity.
The Green Revolution didn't evoke as much opposition as the GM crops. Why?
The introduction of any new strain is bound to be received with some
suspicion. The GM crops themselves don't limit biodiversity any more than
conventional agriculture does. Farmers buy advanced strains of anything
for they believe they are buying the seeds that will grow into
better-yielding crops. In the US alone, 400 varieties of soyabeans are
being grown -- all of them are genetically modified. So where is the
question of homogenisation? That GM crops produce just one kind, is a
The reason for introducing crops that produce their own pesticide is to
avoid spraying them in the fields. In the US every year, on agricultural
land, pesticide spraying kills around 85 million birds, tens of billions
of insects, cause 130,000 cases of sickness in humans, and 10,000 extra
deaths. By engineering human-safe pesticides into crops, we hope to avoid
this. You have to look at ecological impacts in the right context.
In India you have in place a very good system of testing, deploying and
using agricultural crops; you are an economically strong and
scientifically very advanced country; perfectly able to get along with the
testing and proper use of GM crops on your own terms. Transferring genes
from one kind of organism to another is not a dramatic violation of the
laws of nature any more than cultivating an area the size of South America
for agricultural purposes. We need to appropriate modern science for our
own use in our own way, in our own time -- but we also need to give people
the time to get used to this. Labelling might help people make an informed
choice. For more than a decade since GM crops have been in use, there has
been no case of poisoning or any untoward outcome.
How do you rate India's biodiversity?
India has six per cent of the world's biodiversity, one-third of which is
found nowhere else. You are one of the ten most rich countries in
biodiversity. There are three important areas - the western ghats, the
Northeast and Kashmir. The last two are unfortunately wracked by unrest
which can adversely affect biodiversity. India has to enhance state and
national level efforts to protect its biodiversity. Not only government
but also NGOs, private sector and the people themselves have to be
involved in this effort.
Empowering rural-folk, especially women and children is vital. The other
problem is increasing global urbanisation. Greater awareness and knowledge
will enable people to make informed choices. Saving the planet is really
in the hands of the people, individuals.
CSIRO scientists finding could provide boost to Australian wool producers
Australian scientists report that they have increased wool production by
feeding sheep a genetically modified lupin. Lupin, a mainstay of sheep
summer diet, has been modified to produce a protein high in sulfur and
stable in the sheep's intestine, which adds to the nutritional value of
the seed. CSIRO Livestock Industries' Colin White says the feeding trial
resulted in an 8% increase in wool growth and a 7% increase in live weight
gain in the sheep fed the modified lupins.
"Wool and muscle growth has a high demand for sulphur amino acids, which
are absorbed through the sheep's small intestine," says CSIRO Plant
Industry scientist TJ Higgins, "but the sheep's first stomach, the rumen,
tends to break down up to 40% of these essential nutrients before they
reach the intestine."
"We have modified the lupin to contain a sunflower gene that produces a
protein that is both rich in sulfur amino acids and stable in the sheep's
rumen. This protein acts as an efficient package for delivering the extra
sulfur amino acids where they are needed to achieve better growth."
According to White, these results translate into an additional 160 tons of
wool per year. "In other words farmers could produce more wool from the
same number of sheep, or alternatively they could produce the same amount
of meat or wool with fewer sheep and lower cost," says White.
The trial was conducted over six weeks with 80 sheep that were divided
equally into two groups and fed a cereal-hay based diet containing either
modified or unmodified lupin seed.
Higgins says this research potentially offers a valuable boost to
Australian wool by reducing costs, increasing profits and making
production more efficient.
"We are pleased with the results which are a culmination of over ten years
of research, including a stringent environmental safety assessment
With successful results from the lupin trials, the researchers are
currently working towards similar positive results with subterranean
clover, an important pasture plant for the wool industry.
All CSIRO gene technology research is carried out according to the strict
guidelines of the Federal Government's Genetic Manipulation Advisory
The research is supported by grain-growers and the Federal Government
through the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and by the
Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA).
The findings will appear in the international Journal of Science of Food
For more information, contact TJ Higgins of CSIRO Plant Industry at
02-6246-5063, or Colin White of CSIRO Livestock Industries at 08-9333-669.
Fears & Facts About GM Plants